The Queer Eye host and activist’s journey is proof that anyone can make a career out of their passions.
Karamo stumbled upon his passion accidentally. “When I was in the 10th grade I became a peer counselor and I did it originally because I could get out of one of my worst classes, which was math,” he laughs. “And also because I was a little nosy and you get to learn everybody’s business.”
But the gig quickly taught Karamo—as he’s become mononymously known— something important. “As I started to help people, I realized what an impact it was to be able to just to be there for someone, let them know they’re not alone and give them a little push in the right direction.”
In many ways, that same spirit of helping people is how he built his career. Today, Karamo is the culture expert on Netflix’s beloved Queer Eye reboot, where he dispenses advice on loving yourself, caring for your mental health and feeling good in your own skin. But long before he made the switch to the small screen— but after originally shooting to fame on MTV’s The Real World: Philadelphia in 2004— Karamo spent a decade working as a social worker and psychotherapist. More recently, he’s written self esteem-bolstering books, launched a skincare line with a difference and performed a variety of charity work, including alongside Barack Obama.
As Karamo describes himself: “I am a television host. I am an activist. I’m a father. I’m someone who just likes to have fun and help people.”
This year Karamo has found a new way to lend a hand. He’s stepping up as one of the judges for the Passion Fund, an initiative from Linktree and Square where online creators can apply for the chance to receive financial support to help turn their passion into a full-time gig. The Passion Fund will disburse a total of USD$250,000 among 25 to 40 creators, artists, side hustlers and small businesses. It’s money that could turn dreams into realities.
The Passion Fund is being launched to further fuel the growth of what’s been called ‘the passion economy.’ Unlike the gig economy, where work may be self-directed but is still controlled by a third party, the passion economy gives creators complete agency over what they do. It’s been facilitated by platforms like Linktree, which allow creators to monetize content on their terms.
Karamo is excited to be involved with the Passion Fund because he knows first hand how big things can get when you chase your dreams. Ten years into his working life, his own career goals began to morph.
“I remember waking up one day and saying to myself, ‘I want to be in TV’,” he reflects. “It was always something in the back of my head as a kid, but my parents are immigrants and [to them being in] television is not a real job. If you’re not a doctor, a lawyer, or something like that—it’s not a real job. And so I put that dream to the side.”
“But once I was successful in social services, I said, ‘Well, why can’t I? Why can’t I try this?’ And let me tell you all something. I was now 30-something-years-old, deciding to switch careers and focus on a new passion. You can imagine every person around me was like, ‘What is wrong with you? Don’t do it. You have kids. You can’t change careers’.
And I kept thinking to myself, I'm not messing with my life. I'm elevating my life.
Needless to say, Karamo’s TV pivot paid off. Since he landed the life-changing role on Queer Eye, Karamo has found more ways to put his passion for helping others into action. He’s penned a memoir and published a children’s book with his son Jason called I Am Perfectly Designed, an “exuberant celebration of loving who you are, exactly as you are”. He also launched a skincare line called MANTL for bald or balding men —something born of his own struggles with self esteem.
“When I started balding at 22, I hated it. I hid it with hats. I thought I wasn’t going to be sexy anymore,” he says. “But [eventually] I realized my life wasn’t over, my life was just evolving to something new. And I was like, ‘How could I start a skincare line where I can inspire people to know the same for them?’”
But he had to overcome one major hurdle to launch the brand: a global pandemic. Karamo started MANTL in March 2020, just as COVID-19 shut down the world, and was worried everything would “fall apart before it can even start”. It didn’t. In fact, just a few months down the track, the brand received a shout-out from a very high profile supporter: Beyoncé.
“I did a backflip, a cartwheel, called my mama, called my grandma. I was like, Beyoncé, during a pandemic, just shouted out my skincare line and posted it on her website!” he recalls.
Karamo knows that TV hosting, entrepreneurship, writing and activism is a mixed CV. “I’m 40, but sometimes I feel like I’ve lived 20 different lives,” he jokes. But that range of experience means he’s learned a lot about work, life and chasing your dreams. One of “the biggest lessons,” he says, has been the value of asking for help.
“Sometimes when you’re starting your passion… you look around and you say to yourself, well, I’ve got to do this all on my own. And that’s not the truth. There are so many people that want to help you,” he says. “That’s what I love about the Passion Fund. This is an opportunity for young innovators, creators, entrepreneurs, activists to know that there is somebody that wants to give them support.”
He thinks his own journey is proof that anyone can make a career out of their passions.
“There were a lot of days I was like, ‘I can’t get out of bed today to do this’,” he admits. “It makes me feel emotional sometimes, knowing that this life really wasn’t designed for me to be successful… yet I found a way to make it through.
“I mean, I always tell people this: If a gay black man from the South can do it, you can do it too. You have just got to believe in yourself.”